Recently emerged from obscurity at 81, this millionaire textile baron remains full of surprises - and that that's just how he likes it.
A fair number of Aucklanders have fronted up in recent months to protest against the proposed Ports of Auckland extensions. Some are well known - Sir Graham Henry, Denise L'Estrange-Corbet, Neil Finn. And a chap called Stuart Smith. He paid for two big ads in this paper and for a plane to fly a banner at a Stop Stealing Our Harbour protest. He was described as a wealthy philanthropist. He appeared in a picture in a paper. He was wearing a little straw trilby, of the sort usually seen on hipsters, a flowery shirt. He had a linen jacket thrown over his shoulder. He looked pretty cool. But who was he?
Until then he has had no public profile at all, which is the way he likes it - or at least the way he liked it until now. He said: "What I'm doing goes against my normal character. Ha. But I was furious." He also said: "I was on TV!" I have the feeling he is rather enjoying himself. He has always given money to charity, mostly charities for children, and for the rescue helicopter. He thinks he gives away about $100,000 a year to various philanthropic causes: "I'd have to ask the accountant." He thinks he's spent about $100,000, so far, on fighting the port expansion. It offends him that other cities, like Sydney, have beautiful harbours and make proper use of them. Auckland's port, he says: "It's not business."
I went to see him this week after phoning him about what I called "your victory", after the High Court ruling against the Ports of Auckland. He said: "Tee hee." I have never met anyone who actually tee hees, but he does. I would have liked to have seen the house of a wealthy philanthropist who wears hipster hats but I couldn't go to his Parnell house because it is being repaired for leaks before he sells it. He doesn't want to sell a house with leaks because it would be morally wrong but also because he doesn't want the leak to come back and bite him on the backside. That would be bad business.
Nothing annoys him more than bad business, which is what he says the port proposal is. His favoured phrase for expressing opprobrium about the behaviour of fools is that: "It's not business." This is likely to be accompanied by an enthusiastic thumping of the table for emphasis.
His business has been textiles since he started as a salesman in his early 20s, and since 1965 running his own textiles company, Smith Uren. He took rather a lot of delight in telling me that there is a monthly lunch for the old timers of the textile trade and that he's the only one whose business is still going. "Well, they didn't change. We do totally different things than what we did before. Ha, ha." I'll say. He started in bed sheets and now does, among many, many other things, bullet proof vests.
He also co-owns The Aromatherapy Company, with one of his three daughters, Sarah. Does he believe in aromatherapy? "Yeah. It actually works, but it's also a marketing system." He uses aromatherapy, he said. I wasn't sure whether he really did or whether saying so was a marketing system. What did he use it for? "Well, you can put it on your hands or you can put it in a candle." He says he always burns the candles at home. He likes things that smell nice. His favourite perfume is Kenzo: "Which is quite cheap and quite good. Because I'm a mean person. Tee hee."
He was wearing one of his hats, inside his office, and the same flowery shirt and a pair of trousers which were an interesting colour which a person who is not in the textile trade might describe as camel dung. He described the colour as "almost a gold" and as he is in the textile trade, he is the authority.
He said he gets a lot of comments on these trousers. He said: "See these pants? See this? See this?" He was pointing at those gold trousers, the flowery shirt, the hat. "They're all from Zara", his favourite shop. "They've always got a sale on. " The pants cost about $100. "And what's the point of going and buying a brand name when it's a pair of trousers? You can buy trousers that are exactly the same fabric as these and you'll pay three times the price." He thought he might be worth about 40 million, although he wasn't sure because he doesn't count and it's all in the business and so he might not be. And anyway, it's confidential he said, much later. So who knows? He may well have pulled a figure out of his hipster hat so as to keep the real figure confidential.
Still, I said, a bit faintly, thinking of that figure he pulled out of his hat, and of his $100 trousers, at least he had expensive shoes. "I have to tell you that they're not that expensive." They were knock offs. "Tee hee. I bought them in Taiwan." They had a logo which may or may not have been designed to look like the Ferragamo logo. He took one shoe off and handed it round and we all peered at it. To the best of my recollection I have never peered at a shoe in an interview before. I can say with some surety that this is the first and last time I will peer at the knock off shoe of a multi-millionaire, in an interview, or in any other circumstances.
I said: "How would you describe your personal style, Stuart?" He thought for a minute and said: "I want to be different." But why does he? "Why be like everyone else?"
He is 81. I wondered whether he'd always worn perfume and he said: "Not when I was young." Not too many men would have worn perfume when he was young. "Absolutely not." He moves with the times, then. "Yeah, yeah. I came from the back of beyond."
He came from Wellington, actually, where his father was "singularly unsuccessful" at running a second-hand furniture shop. People would say they had no money and offer five quid for a table, say, priced at ten quid, and he'd take it. His mother was a good businesswoman and ran two boarding houses and kept her family of six kids and her unsuccessful husband "ticking over". His father was born in Scotland, in Inverness, and always told a story about having arrived in New Zealand with "half a crown in his pocket. He didn't. After he died we found out, from his brother, that he came out with a five pound note. When he got here he put it an envelope and sent it back to his father. He hated his father. He used to hit him".
He also found out that his father had arrived with something else, also never disclosed: A first wife, who scarpered back to Scotland. You'd think he might have minded his father never revealing this but he said: "It was just the times and you've got to go with the times. In those days divorce wasn't the thing."
His parents were Salvation Army officers and they, and he, wore the uniform. He played the trombone in the Salvation Army band and was of course a top trombone player (he doesn't muck about doing things he's no good at.) He gave it all up when he was in his early 20s and has since been an atheist. "Well, I never quite believed in it anyway." He just liked the uniform and playing the trombone. But what was it like being in the Salvation Army? "Oh, it was quite good but it was a bit difficult because occasionally I wanted to have it away with one of the girls in the choir and it wasn't quite done." So he had no luck there. "No, I did of course. Tee hee!"
He minded, of course, being poor and going to school, often, with no shoes. He resolved that he wouldn't be poor when he grew up, at a very early age. He sold the Evening Post on Courtenay Place from the age of ten - he can still do the patter: "Eeeeveeening Pooost! I was good at it too. The papers were two pennies and you often got a threepenny piece and you wanted the penny. How did you get the penny? Smile! Ha, ha! 'Oh, thank you sir!'" he said, doffing an imaginary cap atop his straw hat. He looked like the cheeky charming ten year old paper seller he was then. I'd have given him the penny tip. Most people did. "It was my first lesson in business." It wasn't quite his first lesson. At five, when his parents had a dairy, he'd wait outside the shop with his little wooden wagon and offer to take ladies' groceries home for them. He thinks sales people are born, not made. He likes talking and laughing. "I do a lot of laughing."
He does a lot of laughing but you wouldn't want to cross him. He's proud of his Scottish ancestry. He is still a Highlander in spirit. He owns a kilt, which I said he should have worn to a protest rally and he said: "I should have. Scared the hell out of them with my dirk!" He gave me a history lesson about the dirk. "You took your dirk everywhere. To someone's house for dinner to cut up your meat and of course you killed a few people with it on the way."
He doesn't need his dirk. He has many tricks, some of which he told me about. One involved pretending to be asleep at a meeting to buy out a partner's shares and then pretending to wake up at the moment negotiations had stalled. " I said: 'It's lunchtime. Let's toss.' We tossed. And I won."
In those days he wore a suit. He never does now. He has a man bag, which I said was a bit trendy. "Well, you can either carry a briefcase or that and I think that looks better. It looks more relaxed." Note that "looks". Even his bag is part of his bag of tricks, then.
He has been divorced twice and now lives on his own and has bought an apartment on the 13th floor of the Kingsview complex on Remuera Rd for "about $1.2 million It's worth about two now". He collects Aboriginal art - "it's colourful" - and antiques and he'd quite like a girlfriend although he doesn't plan to get married again. "Oh no!" Where's he going to get this girlfriend? "Oh, you just meet someone." I suggested he might try internet dating and he said he hadn't thought about that but, with gusto: "It might be an an idea".
It wouldn't surprise me if at 81 he did go in for internet dating (or Dancing With the Stars, for that matter.). He is a surprising sort of character. He claims to be a semi-Socialist who doesn't believe in unions and who votes National, for one complicated example. He cultivates the element of surprise, I think. It's useful, for business. But also he hates to be bored and the best way not to be bored is to go on surprising people - including himself. And nobody is more surprised than he is to have become a public figure at this late stage of his interesting but hitherto private life.